The basic arguments surrounding the expected Estonian parliament’s new legislation on who is or isn’t a freedom fighter are fraught with historic as well as emotional bias.
Reasons used to oppose the recognition of those fighting Soviet forces in German uniforms: The tens of thousands of Estonians who were forced or who volunteered for service in the German forces held many different motives and personal principles, implying that not all held the lofty goal of Estonia’s independence. Although the concept of fighting for a country’s freedom fitted well with many of these soldiers, it’s also argued that some could have been attracted by Nazi ideology and Berlin’s goal of dominating Central and Eastern Europe. (Lending credence to an opposing view are the numerous memoirs and diaries written by of those in German uniforms, who bitterly rejected German national interests, who saw the battle as one for Estonian freedom and who had no other choice but to join the only side which fought the despised Soviets, who were the first to occupy and suppress Estonians.)
Many supporters of this approach would concede that those Estonian volunteers who fought in the Finnish armed forces, deliberately rejecting the direct command of German superiors (even though Finland was an ally of Germany) could possibly be considered to be a freedom fighter. In a logically related argument, the “brothers of the forest – metsavennad”, resistance fighters not aligned with any foreign powers, might also be grudgingly accepted as freedom fighters. By extension then political dissidents through the Soviet era should also fit the preferred profile. The latter interpretations digress from traditional approaches. While maintaining that Estonia during the 1941-1944 period suffered a Nazi occupation, one would have to admit that the 1940-1941 and 1944-1991 eras were undeniably Soviet occupations – a concession that Moscow vehemently opposes.
Arguments supporting the recognition of certain categories of anti-Soviet fighters are also varied: While agreeing that both the German and Soviet occupations were periods of repressive foreign dominance and that the Red Army offensive of 1944 rid Estonia of the Nazi regime, the “liberation” that Moscow incessantly touts was in fact the immediate installation of a long-term brutal and oppressive rule, totally alien to Estonia’s political and cultural traditions. That is why, many observers suggest, anti-Soviet fighters should be recognized. They are the ones who in fact fought the system that put the totalitarian stamp on hundreds of millions, spread over a vast region with devastating impact. Anti-Nazi fighters gained immediate due recognition, even dating back to pre-war years, when persecuted German academics, clergy etc. received international attention and applause.
It has also been suggested that not recognizing anti-Soviet fighters as freedom fighters simply gives a wrong signal to the younger generation. They currently aren’t easily taken with a sense of patriotism, an orientation that small nations with uncertain national security status needs. In a military crisis, anything less than national mobilization will be inadequate. Patriotism spurs the effort.
Even though defense minister Mart Laar has emphasized that the freedom-fighter designation should not be automatically equated with all who wore the German uniform, critics have stated that such an official designation would sanctify Nazi atrocities. Here it should be noted that the Nuremberg Trails, in declaring the Waffen SS a criminal organization, explicitly excluded conscripts in specific categories, including those who were drafted into the membership by the State (the German occupation regime) in such a way as to give them no choice in the matter, and who had committed no war crimes. In 1950 the US High Commission in Germany clarified the US position on the Baltic Legions. They were not to be considered as “movements”, “volunteer”, or “SS”. They were not given the training, indoctrination and induction normally given to SS members, thus separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities and qualifications for membership from the German SS.
It has been stated that the timing of the possible legislation is far from opportune, that Moscow would make political hay by diverting attention from domestic political discord and presidential elections to an “international scandal”. Surely the time for such legislation would never be favourable. The international furor that then displaces any logical and measured discussion would inevitably be fed by Moscow’s well-trained propaganda apparatus.
Those opposing the freedom-fighter designation accuse Estonia of being cavalier in the possibility of a genuine round of “history diplomacy” with Russia that reflect a mutual desire for more normal, if not yet cordial, relations. They insist that economic crises-ridden economies of the Baltic states need Russia as an economic partner. But they ignore the fact that Kremlin-twisted history has long ago seriously shaped foreign policy perceptions and will be used by Moscow irrespective of economic needs.
Who’s a freedom fighter? A simple question, difficult to answer (II)